In August, a task force appointed by Senate President Steve Sweeney presented a report with 30 recommendations aimed at easing the state’s financial burden. Among those recommendations was a proposal to consolidate school districts across the state.
Regionalization vs. Home Rule
New Jersey has long been a state committed to home rule. A patchwork of 565 municipalities of all sizes characterizes a state in which the tax structure is heavily weighted toward local property taxes. Almost 600 school districts are part of that patchwork.
Some argue that home rule is part of the DNA of New Jersey. In terms of school districts, a myriad of attempts to reduce the number of districts have been enveloped in controversy and ultimately defeated.
One attempt at the turn of the 20th century sought to force consolidations but contained an exemption for municipalities that were classified as boroughs. Hundreds of boroughs sprang up across the state.
A 1969 study called for mergers that would result only in school districts that were K-12. The controversy led two governors to retreat from support of the effort and to call for further studies completed in 1980 and 1994.
Rutgers University Professor Ernest Reock completed a study in 1993 that suggested that the state could save as much as $200 million through consolidations. His plans went nowhere.
Sweeney’s task force recommendations, if implemented, could lead to the merger of over 200 districts that now serve only elementary and middle school students into K-12 districts. The push is clearly economic.
After all the task force was created to head off financial crisis and to help the state hold on to individuals moving in increasing numbers to more tax-friendly states.
School consolidation is only a subset of its recommendations. Yet it is the area that provoked immediate headlines and drew quick opposition from the New Jersey Education Association.
Sweeney has argued that consolidation has benefits that go beyond financial savings. He is trying to head off immediate rejection of the proposals by pointing to educational benefits of the plan.
Along with non-instructional savings, proponents of the recommendations argue they would result in better alignment of curricula across the grades, leading to better-prepared students entering the state’s high schools. Varied resources not available to small school districts would also add richness to the curriculum.
Opponents fear a less responsive regional administration, lower levels of parental involvement, higher class size and the loss of neighborhood schools leading to increased busing of students.
On the monetary front consensus is equally hard to find. Those in favor of consolidation point to potential reductions in administrative staff, more efficient transportation networks and a less complex network of teachers' union contracts.
A stated goal of the task force report was to reduce the constant pressure on property tax rates.
Yet, some opponents worry that regional systems would pull together richer and poorer districts leading to tax increases for the more well-off communities.
Some have begun to advocate for what might be called "consolidation lite," a system that retains local schools while aligning them with a designated high school. From a financial perspective studies on consolidation in states that have done it argue that the only way to see the savings is to embrace significant change.
One New York study concluded that without a willingness to accept higher class size and closure of a number of community schools savings would never materialize.
Is this about money and taxes? Is it about better educational outcomes? Could it be both?
Sweeney said he understands the obstacles that must be overcome in order to consolidate school districts. He has publicly stated that he may even be ready to support a state mandate that forces change at some point.
First, however, he has called for a statewide discussion of the issues. That is exactly what a group of concerned county residents has initiated.
Cape Issues is a gathering of Cape May County citizens who meet monthly to consider issues they believe are critical to the future welfare of the county.
The group is currently discussing the task force proposals and looking broadly at the state of the county’s public education system and its links to property taxes and economic development.
In its earliest stages, the discussion at a recent Cape Issues meeting ranged from consideration of possible negative tax consequences for island municipalities to issues of transportation systems.
While one member extolled the advantages of magnet schools another said that community-based schools offer a valuable learning experience that would be lost in a magnet school structure.
For some, the issue of consolidation should be linked to that of performance. The concern is over evidence that suggests that many students are not well prepared for either college or careers at the end of a K-12 experience.
Consensus can only be built through open discussion and exploration of issues. Discussion can only be beneficial if all are open to questioning beliefs about what constitutes the best structure for education.
Cape Issues is looking for input from the community.
How should Cape May County react to the task force proposals? What should we resist? What should we embrace? What can we add?
A Herald editorial by Publisher Art Hall recently called for input from the public on the issue of school consolidation.
Thoughts and suggestions can be sent to CapeIssues@CMCHerald.com